The council will have higher status and greater accountability than the existing Human Rights Commission, a body highly criticized for its failure to stop human rights offenses and for admitting rights abusers.
“The resolution gives us a solid formation on which all who are truly committed to the cause of human rights must now build,” said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “I believe they will succeed in building a framework within which governments from all parts of the world can work together to promote human rights, more effectively than before.”
Out of the 191 member nations in the General Assembly, 170 voted in favor of the new council, with four countries, the United States, Israel, Marshall Island and Palau, voting against the resolution and three countries, Belarus, Iran and Venezuela, abstaining.
The United States refused to back the new body, claiming the resolution did not prevent human rights violators from gaining membership. A U.S. resolution called for a two-thirds vote for membership and banned countries under U.N. sanctions for human rights violations from sitting on the council.
“We did not have sufficient confidence in this text to be able to say that the Human Rights Council will be better than its predecessor,” said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
Bolton also objected to a two-term limit for council members and to the provision allowing one-third of council members to put an issue on the council’s agenda, arguing that it should be a majority vote.
Despite these objections, U.S. officials agreed to provide financial backing and said the United States will seek a seat on the new council.
The Human Rights Council will include 47 members, elected to three-year terms by a majority of the General Assembly as opposed to the 53-member commission whose members were approved by the Economic and Social Council. To grant the council a higher status within the United Nations, it will be a direct subsidiary of the General Assembly instead of a body within the Economic and Social Council.
Instead of meeting only once a year for six weeks, the Human Rights Council will meet for a minimum of ten weeks a year and can be called into session in case of an emergency.
“Its ability to meet throughout the year and when necessary for longer than the commission has done, will allow the council to sound the alarm and bring urgent human rights crises to that attention of the world community,” said Annan.
The new council will conduct a “systematic, periodic review” of the human rights records of all U.N. member states beginning with the commission’s members, something that does not exist under the current system. Countries accused of human rights violations could be suspended from the council by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly.
Seats will be distributed among regional groups: 13 for Africa, 13 for Asia, six for Eastern Europe, eight for Latin America and the Caribbean and seven for a block of mainly Western countries, including the United States and Canada.
Annan first proposed a new human rights body at the United Nations summit in September 2005. The existing commission will be abolished June 16 and the new council will convene three days later.